The car my wife and I just bought came to us as a complete surprise. It appears to be a Ford Model T, just now turning 100. It was hot-rodded sometime after World War II, someone’s abandoned project now under new ownership and repurposed once again. The surprise of it is not the kind of car—though we always have been more of a Chevy family—nor even its condition—my projects have been known to strain the limits of polite viability. The surprise is that we own it at all.
The car came to us as part of a package deal. In July we bought the two acres adjacent to our postage-stamp coastal lot. We bought it to keep this little piece of forest from being developed; to help it be healthy after a century of bad haircuts and neglect; to teach it, if we can, how to be old growth once again. We did not buy it for the Ford, but now, into the bargain, it appears we own this symbol of American mobility, now tasked with fighting erosion, holding in place the fill-dirt for a neighbor’s drainfield and lawn.
Ann stumbled onto the car last week when she was exploring the property’s far boundary. She took me to see it today. Near the southwest corner, on a hillside bathed in westerly light and approaching its angle of repose, the car’s most obvious marker is the steering column, appearing like the mast and crow’s nest of an ancient vessel sinking in the verdure. Wedged against a stump bigger than the car itself, the left front tire is there, something balding from the 1950s—like looking in the mirror. At the other end of the axle, the right fender is a layer of dust supported by the ferns, and behind the axle rests the big V-8, headless, with spruce needles in the cylinders and another fern overwhelming a water pump long since seized. Nothing of the body remains except a trace of the delicate curve where it narrowed to meet the hood—the rest is rust stains in the ruddy soil, an aftermarket headlight switch, and an aluminum heater core with enough rainwater in it to soak my boot.
What is it to own such a thing? We have no certificate of title, no more than we have for the stump it nuzzles against or the stands of hemlock and alder along the stream. Ann and I have ordered two hundred trees to plant in the spring—replenishing the cedar as a gift to our grandchildren. I understand buying a seedling or owning a car, but this car and the trees around it stretch my paradigm. Do I own a tree’s life-rings as well as its limbs, do I take on as my own the trauma of its difficult years? Does the Model T have rings as well, not of growth but of decay, in which I now am invested? Do we own its dreams of trips to the market, its season of neglect before it was reimagined, before the dream shifted again and it was called upon to stabilize this pile of dirt? Will we own the new rings that form, the next layers of rust? The chipmunk and the blue jay chatter without giving an answer.
Surprise implies something sudden, but our new car feels almost inevitable. The ferns certainly seem comfortable having it here, embracing the fender, waving from on top of the engine block, a pair of them sitting low and cool where the tuck and roll bucket seats might have been the hotrod’s finishing touch. The stains of the rust are cedar-colored, almost organic.
Whatever else ownership means, this car is our project now. We have decided to leave it alone. If the patient work of regrowing these woods has any success, it will require inevitability to be learned, and maybe the surprise will be where we learn it. After a score of new rings are added, when Ann and I have handed off ownership of it all to another generation and they pick their way among the ferns along the far boundary, should I warn them of the old growth Ford buried there, or let it surprise them?
Steve Quinn and his wife bought their house near Tillamook in 2005, but just this summer, he was finally able to retire (from teaching) and move here full time. As part of the move, they also were able to purchase two adjoining acres, which they are reforesting for the grandkids.